‘Dear David’ Review: A Dull Horror Film That’s Anything but Scary

Based on a viral Twitter thread, John McPhail’s clumsy genre outing often tests one’s patience

Augustus Prew as Adam Ellis in Dear David. Photo Credit: Stephanie Montani

There are a few things that we wish the lead characters of horror movies knew just as confidently as avid horror watchers: Don’t go down in the basement! Don’t go exploring the source of those strange noises! And, under no circumstances, don’t document the eerie things that might be happening in your apartment while you’re asleep, unless you want to open up a portal for some uncanny pests. (“Paranormal Activity,” anyone?)

For BuzzFeed comic Adam Ellis (Augustus Prew), the cynical center of John McPhail’s soulless and haphazard genre entry “Dear David,” that last rule seems to mean nothing. In that, when strange, potentially supernatural stuff starts happening around his apartment, he elects to monitor the activity. Even worse, when he isn’t asleep he decides to engage with some very real creeps—that is, the growing number of online trolls who seem to attack him from all Twitter directions.

Shouldn’t an extremely online BuzzFeed worker know better? Or at least have the good sense to take his coworker’s advice? His office fellow and bestie Evelyn (Andrea Bang) aptly warns him, saying that the more you feed them, the bigger online trolls grow in size. If only Adam listened. And if only “Dear David” didn’t try to braid these two horrors—online and ghostly—as awkwardly as it did.

Perhaps I should take a step back and explain that McPhail’s “Dear David”—written by Mike Van Waes, from a story by Waes and Evan Turner—is based on a viral Twitter thread from 2017, unleashed onto the platform by the real Ellis. “So, my apartment is currently being haunted by the ghost of a dead child and he’s trying to kill me. (thread),” Ellis tweeted at the start, later revealing a drawing of the said child, with a part of his head missing.

People were captivated. “Move,” Zoe Kazan advised. Many echoed this sentiment. Over several months into 2018, Ellis documented his experiences—strange sounds, a rocking chair, Polaroid photos that came out completely black, his two cats curiously gathering by a door every day around midnight, insistent calls from unidentified callers and so on…

All of this, and more, are in the film, along with Ellis’ longtime sleep paralysis that makes him more and more cranky as weeks go by. The trouble is, none of it feels frightening or interesting enough to carry a whole movie, with a story constantly trying (and failing) to convince you that it has the goods to keep your interest intact.

The opening is decent enough, with “Dear David” trying to establish Adam’s hip, pop-culture-infused world. The BuzzFeed office is just as aggravating as one could imagine, with Adam’s arrogantly techy boss Bryce (Justin Long, perfectly cast) throwing around cringe-y, meme-adjacent phrases like “authentic content” and employees trying to come up with the next viral list that “slays”.

We quickly get the sense that Adam is casually put on probation, having delivered none of the things in the aforementioned quotation marks for a while. But when he starts getting haunted by an anonymous Twitter user with the titular handle, Bryce sees the potential in it, even when the being pushes a sleepless and restless Adam to the deep end.

The film is widely and wildly fictionalized, taking plenty of liberties with the actual thread. That’s understandable, as the tweets don’t lend themselves to a complete story (also an issue with 2020’s “Zola,” another—albeit much more inventive—flick based on a series of social media posts). The problem is, “Dear David” doesn’t seem to know how to fill in the gaps. We’re often ping-ponged between Adam’s sleepless nights when he obliviously inflicts self-harm, his flailing relationships with his friends and love interest, the backstory of the (predictably abused) child that might be haunting him and various clumsily staged set pieces that aim to spook and jolt one, unsuccessfully.

In fact, these random attempts to visualize Adam’s terror fall so flat, so often, that one wonders whether “Dear David” is a horror film or one of those parodies that aim to see the comedy in commonly exploited genre tropes. Frequently, the film sadly inches closer to the latter.

Arguably, the worst instinct of the movie kicks in in its final act, when “Dear David” desperately searches for a way to neatly tie everything together in a convincing finale. For that endeavor, the writers reach for some “I am enough”-type therapy speak, attempting to resolve Adam’s unknowable story in the most frustratingly trendy way possible. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work.) So if you’re in search of a new horror film to watch in the countdown to Halloween this October, look elsewhere—no need to go exploring this particular noise in your streaming pool.

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